"It is a fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, and care of their minor children." That's the opening line of Florida's Parents' Bill of Rights, signed into law in June 2021. Similar bills have been proposed in Missouri, Kentucky, Texas, and even at the federal level.
"Our children do not belong to the government," says Patti Sullivan, state coordinator for Parental Rights Florida, which has pushed for legislation of this sort since 2013.
"We do not co-parent with the government. And these entities seem to think that they are entitled to our children, and they are not," says Sullivan.
State bans on the teaching of critical race theory (CRT), which have swept the nation, are a more aggressive attempt to limit the discretion that teachers and administrators have over what's taught in school. They've been especially popular with voters.
Republican Glenn Youngkin ousted the heavily favored Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor's race after he campaigned against CRT in schools, and on his first day in office, he banned it from classrooms via executive order. Four other states have also banned CRT, and several more are considering similar bills.
However, opponents of CRT bans and more modest bills to force schools to post their curricula online say that "curriculum transparency bills are just thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender in schools," as the American Civil Liberties Union recently tweeted.
Parents have never had the "right to shape their kids' school curriculum," authors of a recent Washington Post op-ed argued. If that's what parents want, it says, they should opt out and "send their children to private or religious schools."
But why should families who can afford private school be the only ones who have a say in how their children are taught?
"I'm pretty skeptical of the government deciding what should be taught in any type of school," says Corey DeAngelis, national director of research for the American Federation for Children and a senior fellow at Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this website). He says public school parents should also have the right to choose the most fitting academic setting for their kids. The solution is to "fund students, not systems," giving families the choice to spend education dollars on the schooling of their choosing instead of the one-size-fits-all approach offered by traditional public schools.
"[CRT] bills are just a form of whack-a-mole, where your CRT battles of today were the common core battles of yesterday, and it'll be something else going forward because the reality is parents disagree about what kind of education they want their kids to have…And the better solution is the bottom-up accountability in allowing families to vote with their feet," says DeAngelis.
This has become such a hot-button issue because the pandemic gave parents direct exposure to exactly what their children were and weren't being taught.
"Parents are awake now that they have seen the curriculum," says Tina Descovich, a former Brevard County, Florida, school board member and co-founder of Moms for Liberty. "They now understand school district policies, which they had never looked at before. They are understanding the structure, who holds authority, and what types of authority, within the education system. I think that's vital, and it's something that's been lacking for a long time."
In contrast to CRT bans, the Florida Parents' Bill of Rights broadly affirms that parents have a right to know what schools are teaching and providing to their children.
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill is how it applies to medical and mental health services. It establishes that any medical services provided without parental consent can result in misdemeanor charges.
Sullivan says some parents are particularly concerned that schools are counseling their kids on their sexuality and gender identity without parental consent. The parents of one student in a Tallahassee public school sued after the staff held a meeting without their knowledge to discuss accommodating their 13-year-old's shift to a nonbinary gender identity. They also noted in a file that the student's "privacy when [staff are] speaking to parents" must be considered.
"School districts are not medical facilities. That's a complicated issue. And there should be no reason why parents should not be aware of what's going on with their children in any way, shape, or form," says Sullivan.
It is a complicated issue. Where do the rights of parents end and the privacy rights of teenagers who want to confide in a trusted teacher or counselor begin? It was a topic hotly debated on the floor of the Florida Legislature during the passage of the bill, as representatives echoed the concerns of LGBT constituents who worry that the Parents' Bill of Rights will force staff to disclose the sexuality of gay students who aren't ready to come out to their parents.
There's some dispute over whether the law does indeed require that, with LGBT group Equality Florida issuing a statement that "the bill does nothing to change current law related to disclosure of a student's sexual orientation or gender identity," while Sullivan says that it does.
"The law states that they must share all information with the parent," says Sullivan. "I think that it's very important that we maintain the fact that these parents are entrusting their children to these [government] entities, and they are not qualified or equipped to make those decisions [regarding sexuality and gender]."
DeAngelis maintains that the clash of values is best addressed through increased school choice.
"We force families into a one-size-fits-all, government-run school system, and these bills try to prohibit or encourage certain types of policies in that one-size-fits-all system," says DeAngelis. "The only way to move forward with freedom rather than force is to allow the money to follow the child to wherever they want to get an education that aligns best with their parents' values."
The pandemic-related school closures have bolstered the school choice movement, with 22 states expanding, improving, or implementing new school choice programs in 2021.
Florida is already far ahead of most states in providing parents with school choice, but DeAngelis says it should go further by offering universal vouchers and education savings accounts, which would truly empower parents and children to opt for any school of their choosing.
"What better way to assert parental rights are important than to empower them directly by allowing the money to follow their child to wherever they get an education? Funding students directly truly empowers parents when it comes to their kid's education. That is the best way to assert those rights," says DeAngelis.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller; additional camera by Isaac Reese; graphics by Nodehaus
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